As the number of business schools continues to expand globally year-on-year, every incumbent tries to differentiate itself from the crowd. Far too often this has meant jumping on the next management bandwagon and teaching the latest fad. While this may be important it is hardly innovative or distinctive and is in danger of slowly leading all business schools to become derivatives of one another.

So does differentiation and distinctiveness in the business school market exist? It would be a shame – for student choice and for the evolution of the sector – if differentiation were to boil down to purely a position in the rankings. For many students, proceeding with a management education still equates with improved opportunities for career advancement and the prospect of securing a salary increase. Is this all that differentiates business schools from one another? Currently Moocs, (massive open online courses) private universities, publishers and corporate universities are seen as disrupters of the traditional business education model. However, perhaps the real disrupter and point of differentiation should be the student experience and the delivery of research-led management education.

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Business schools not only need to continue to arm their students with the right employability skills, but also with the right learning perspectives to support life-long learning. One step towards this would be for business schools to develop and deliver programmes which incorporate academic and skills-based competency development as a combined body of knowledge. This is important as more and more career paths require candidates to draw upon degree-level knowledge and transmit this through non-academic business skills. For example, there is increasing interest around learning how to seek funding, handling legal and financial affairs and how to start a business. Teaching such techniques might be considered too vocational at university level. But through blending robust online learning resources which detail the academic theory – accessed via a virtual learning environment – with directed in-class engagement, the classroom can be “flipped” to become a source of learning, rather than a source of content.

Additionally, given that business involves an eclectic mix of diverse subject areas with no discernible “root”, business schools should try to be imaginative about enforcing integrated thinking. This is because most topics in the field of business tend to be taught separately in subject groups or modules (marketing, human resources, finance or strategy). This is unlike medicine, for example, where in general no single topic is either studied or ignored at the expense of another.

If the manner in which student learning was changed, such as through ‘synoptic assessment’, this would allow students the opportunity to apply accumulated knowledge across multiple subject areas at the same time, rather than separately. Making connections between subjects and themes, although well-regarded in many other fields is, sadly, still largely in its infancy in the business school world. Business schools could exploit this approach to enrich learning about a single business topic or challenge through viewing, analysing, combining and recommending knowledge from multiple perspectives. Instead of using multiple company case examples to illustrate learning outcomes, as is the tradition in the field, single, multi-faceted cases requiring a combination of diverse topics to be applied, could be used more often. Adopting such a teaching philosophy through flexible programme curricula, would allow business schools to be innovative and to meet the challenge of rapidly changing employment destinations, job roles and non-traditional employer demands.

Real differentiation will ultimately come when business schools begin to push their own envelope, differentiating themselves not because of what they are but because of the distinctiveness of their education programmes: in this way business schools could increase the volume and variety of work-related opportunities so that students can apply and experience the practice of business theory; become incubators of talent streams for the professions; and remove boundaries across subject areas so that students can learn how to identify patterns and make connections between different ideas and concepts.

To be truly distinctive, business schools need to take a fresh look at how they deliver management education, how they combine knowledge and how they provide learning experiences that can mirror what happens in reality as far as possible. Otherwise every business school will indeed end up being the same.

The author is acting head of Brunel Business School, Brunel University London. @amsharif

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